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Let's Clear the Air
Karl J. Springer, former vice president of the Automotive Products and Emissions Research Division, shares insights on the evolution of emissions research at the Institute and the future of automotive research in general.
You came to the Institute in 1957 after graduating from Texas A&M University with a degree in mechanical engineering, but left after one year, to return in 1963. Why did you leave, and what drew you back?
When I came to the Institute, it was with the understanding that I would be called to active duty in the U.S. Air Force in about one year. For two years, I was a lieutenant assigned to the propulsion laboratory at the Wright Air Development Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. I spent another two years at DuPont as a field engineer until the individual who had originally hired me at the Institute asked me to return to San Antonio. He had started his own company and I worked there for a short time before coming back to the Institute, to the U.S. Army Fuels and Lubricants Research Laboratory.
When did your love for engineering, and for engines in particular, first appear?
I won't say it started with overhauling tricycles, but it does date back to childhood. The first real engine work I did was on motor scooters, and then I progressed to motorcycles. A neighbor, Frank Hagenson, showed me how. As it turned out, Frank came to the Institute before I did, 43 years ago, and he became a manager in charge of fabricating test equipment and teaching our clients how to use it. I had a number of automobiles before I got out of high school. I just had a natural interest in engines. I worked on a drag racer that belonged to another friend of mine. We completed it in my garage one summer, and it was fast.
When I graduated, I went to A&M to study industrial engineering, because that's what my brothers had done. I started off the same way, but soon realized that I was drawn to mechanical engineering, so I changed majors. I've never regretted it. Never. I imagine I would have enjoyed any aspect of engineering, but mechanical engineering has always seemed the best to me, because it's about heat and power.
Did you realize early on that your engineering abilities would find expression in the automotive field?
No. When I was in the Air Force I was very taken with gas turbine turbojet engines. I was even in the rocket activity at Wright Field, and I really got involved in fluid flow and thermodynamics--again, heat and power. There were so many interesting projects going on in the propulsion lab at Wright Field at that time. Sputnik had just gone up, and the space program was beginning in the U.S. Many Air Force research and development projects were redirected toward space. The first astronauts were being selected. It was an exciting time. I had an opportunity to go to Edwards Air Force Base, to work on rockets, but there were limited facilities there for families, and my wife and I had just had our first child. It wasn't until I came back to the Institute that I began to focus again on piston engines.
Shortly after returning to the Institute, you became involved in emissions research. How did your interest in this particular area evolve?
Henry Korp, vice president of SwRI at the time, involved me in a meeting in 1965 with government officials concerned about automotive air pollution. It wasn't called the Environmental Protection Agency then. It was the National Air Pollution Control Administration, part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The Clean Air Act of 1963 marked the beginning of organized efforts to control air pollution at the federal level. There were even earlier efforts in California and at SwRI to do something about pollution.
The first NAPCA emissions project at the Institute was on diesel odor and smoke from buses and trucks. Buses and trucks emitted noticeable amounts of visible smoke. People could see it and smell it, and they didn't like it, so we had to develop ways to measure the smoke and odor and then do something about it. That's when diesel pollution control really began, and this early work led to the formation of an emissions research laboratory at the Institute. Control of other pollutants--hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen--came later, after the diesel odor and smoke issues were clearly understood, control methods investigated, and certain improvements made.
Odor control legislation never came about, because manufacturers were able to lower the emissions that contributed to odor. And recent changes in diesel fuel further reduced odor, especially when refiners nationwide began to produce a low-sulfur diesel fuel in 1993.
In 1993, I was presenting a paper at a meeting in Brazil where the attendees were celebrating the 100th anniversary of the patent for the diesel engine. When I addressed the group, I said I could clearly see that the turning point in design and development of the diesel engine was a series of federal smoke laws based on the smoke test procedure developed at the Institute in 1967. That procedure incorporated the smoke opacity meter built by the Public Health Service at the Robert A. Taft Sanitary Engineering Center in Ohio. That's where the first air pollution work for the federal government took place.
The diesel engine had turned a corner, one that resulted in a clear improvement in its image. Of course, the diesel already offered significant benefits--fuel economy, durability, reliability--so its reputation was only enhanced by the attention to smoke and odor. Later, a host of other improvements were made in the areas of particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen. As a carbon dioxide control method, the use of the diesel, with its superior fuel economy, far outperforms other heat engines, such as gasoline engines.
Describe the early days of vehicle emissions control. How did they affect what was happening at the Institute?
Passenger car emissions studies were going on in other parts of the country. Some of these were well advanced in terms of analyzing and understanding control methods and their importance. Heavy duty vehicles, such as gasoline- and diesel-powered trucks and buses, became the next priority. And that's where the Institute really made its name early on, in non-passenger car activities. We began a series of examinations of heavy duty engines and the fuels they burned. For a long time, we didn't conduct much work on passenger cars.
After the EPA became a reality in 1970, there were many more legislative requirements. The U.S. set emissions limits for hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen from gasoline and diesel vehicles, for evaporative emissions from gasoline cars, and for smoke emissions from heavy duty diesel engines. Suddenly, manufacturers were required by law to comply or risk not being able to sell their product. This became known as emissions control by "technology-forcing regulations," a policy that eventually spread to the fuel refining industry.
In the '70s, the EPA wanted to learn more about other sources of pollution, such as locomotives, construction equipment, motorcycles, outboard engines, rivercraft, and lawnmowers. So we developed a list of priorities for the EPA that would help them determine if regulation of those engines was essential. Before the engines could be regulated, someone had to quantify and qualify the emissions they produced. Our approach was to take many measurements, to try to understand how the engines were used, what operating conditions they were exposed to, how much fuel they burned, etc. We were then able to develop a list that prioritized areas of possible concern and regulation. And we developed measurement techniques and investigated control technologies. The EPA had to demonstrate that regulation was technically feasible, and we made it possible for them to do that in some cases.
Next, the EPA became concerned about unregulated emissions, such as carcinogens and other toxic substances, so we began work in chemical characterization. There was one wave of compelling activity after another, and all along we were working principally for the EPA. A change occurred when Reagan became president and EPA contracting activity diminished. We then branched out into more work for commercial clients.
How have Institute contributions in these areas shaped legislation or governmental regulations?
The Institute has helped the federal government and certain state governments define the degree to which a vehicle's emissions could be controlled, how it could be done with existing control methods, or the potential of new technology. Central to this effort were the procedures to quantify the improvements. Many of the on- and off-road engine test procedures developed here ended up in the Code of Federal Regulations. We demonstrated that reduced emissions levels could be achieved and how to do so, in terms of both equipment and procedures. Manufacturers weren't required to use our techniques, but they served as proof of principle.
To properly develop procedures, the Institute had to build the capability to simulate a broad variety of actual engine and vehicle operating conditions and to make meaningful measurements that were precise and repeatable. This is an ongoing activity, as we are now deeply involved in off-road vehicles and unregulated emissions. Twenty years after that initial look at unregulated emissions by the EPA, additional sources are being regulated as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Passenger cars and heavy duty trucks and buses made tremendous gains in emissions control from 1970 to 1990, despite their increasing numbers, so legislative focus has shifted to include vehicles like locomotives and farm and construction equipment.
A lot of the language that goes into federal and state regulations and procedures makes use of our basic data. The data has been used and quoted in ways we never expected, and it has proven accurate over time.
Technology transfer began when vehicle and engine companies from other parts of the world visited the Institute and became interested in our work for the EPA. As a result, SwRI became well known in Japan and some of the European countries. The U.S. is a big market for them and they were very concerned about anything, whether it was an unregulated pollutant or a heavy-duty engine procedure, that would restrict their ability to sell products here. So the chemical analyses activity in the Emissions Research Department became strong and it still is today.
Direct evidence of our work also appears in the standards setting activities of groups such as the American Society for Testing and Materials and in the recommended practices of the Society for Automotive Engineers. Those groups look to the Institute as a leader in procedures for automotive research and development.
The Automotive Products and Emissions Research Division has been instrumental in the introduction of a number of improved lubricant, fuel, and emission control procedures. Which of these do you consider the most significant?
The smoke test procedure, certainly. It got the total attention of manufacturers and redirected diesel engine research and development. We've participated in most of the major improvements in the diesel engine since then, but that advance stands out.
We also have an excellent passenger car capability. One of our engineers recently demonstrated, in an internal research and development project, that it was possible to meet the California ultra-low emissions vehicle standards with an electrically preheated catalyst, before the standards were even put in place. That stimulated a lot of manufacturers and catalyst companies to take a look at the technology as a way to meet the new regulations.
In the fuels area, I'd have to say it's the BMW fuel deposit test, used to qualify gasoline for controlled intake valve deposits. The Fleet Laboratory developed this test procedure for BMW in the late 1980s to identify gasolines that could function well in the BMW engine for 50,000 miles. The test procedure soon became the standard method to qualify gasolines for controlled intake system deposits, first required by the California Air Resources Board and soon after that by the EPA for all gasolines sold in the U.S. This procedure has helped improve gasoline quality in the U.S. as well as in an increasing number of other countries. Motorists have benefited significantly, in terms of improved vehicle driveability, from additive-treated gasolines qualified by the SwRI-BMW procedure. It's probably the best example of how a solution for one client's problem was put directly to use for the public good.
We've covered a lot of ground in the emissions area. What about other activities in the division?
The first project in this division, in 1949, was a single-cylinder Caterpillar diesel engine lubricants test. The U.S. Army had experienced numerous problems with lubricants and gear oils during World War II. Following competitive bid practice, the Army required that products meet minimum specifications and then qualified bidders for gear and motor oils. The Army wanted a lubricant they could put into any vehicle, in any part of the world, with no problems. That project was the beginning of the automotive procedures development and test evaluation activity at SwRI.
Today, the largest percentage of the work in this division is fuels and lubricants research, which is typically commercially sponsored. Work in these areas touches every chemical, fluid, and drivetrain component that goes into a motor vehicle, be it on- or off-road. Studies are conducted at every level, from bench tests to evaluations of full-size equipment. Farm tractors, hydraulic fluids, outboard engines, two-stroke lubricants--a whole range of automotive products is investigated. The division prides itself on being a full-service laboratory.
Our mission has always been to help the client get products to market. We had partnerships with our clients before partnerships were popular, and much of our work is repeat business. Clients know we are objective and responsive to their needs.
There are four important dimensions to our work. Initially, the work in this division was concerned with lubricants, but we couldn't perform lubricant evaluations unless we knew something about fuels and engines, so for a long time we worked in a triangle formed by lubricants, fuels, and engines. About 30 years ago emissions became important. The interplay between these four areas is critical. Now, fuels and lubricants are feeling the brunt of the changing emissions laws requiring improvements in gasoline and diesel fuels, as well as a 100,000-mile emissions warranty on passenger cars. Lubricants play a part in emissions by prolonging the life of the engine. Imagine the levels of maintenance a car might receive over eight to ten years--the number of owners it might have. These cars require systems that consume very little oil as well as lubricants that don't produce any catalyst-poisoning substances. Similar changes are under way in diesel engines.
The call for longer-lasting engines means rapid changes in lubricant performance categories. This in turn creates problems, because by the time new lubricants are formulated and the procedures to evaluate them are developed, the needs change. At present, it's about a four-year cycle, which correlates to the emissions laws.
Your commitment to emissions control strategies often takes the form of technology transfer and educational activities in other countries. Why is this important, and what do you feel is your most significant contribution in this area?
A free exchange of information with clients has always been an Institute policy. As our customer base began to include more and more international companies, I felt there was a strong need to conduct seminars, to explain test methods and performance requirements for emissions, fuels, and lubricants. Meeting product standards is a life or death issue for many of our clients. These seminars can also be an extremely effective form of promotion, when you share with clients and their customers the importance and implications of what you are doing, and how to understand the results. We have learned that participating in their training programs is one way to forge close relationships. The Institute has provided seminars and training for companies in Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Sweden, India, China, Taiwan, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, and Korea. When we work with other companies, we don't promote our solutions as the best fit for their problems. We try to ask the questions that lead them to discover their own most appropriate solutions. We are catalysts.
Last fall, I presented a paper titled "Energy and Environmental Implications of Increased Vehicle Use in China" at the China Automotive Technology Conference in Beijing. The objective of the conference, which was sponsored by Ford and the Society of Automotive Engineers, was to help the Chinese plan vehicle and emissions control strategies for the future, to minimize the impact of rapidly increasing vehicle use. This is a pressing problem--in a 10-year span, from 1982 to 1992, the total number of vehicles in use in China increased from a little more than two million to almost seven million, and that number is expected to grow at an increased rate in the future. I co-chaired a workshop on engine and emissions control strategies attended by experts from both China and the U.S. By its conclusion, a consensus had been reached on 10 recommendations for the years 2000, 2005, and beyond.
The dialog with China is just one of several collaborations that we are participating in to address the problems of pollution and energy consumption in the context of increasingly global concerns and regulations.
What has been the single most effective advance in automotive emissions control in this country?
The three-way catalyst, in which carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons are oxidized while oxides of nitrogen are reduced, was a giant leap forward. It wasn't our idea, but we were peripherally involved in it. Of course the effectiveness of the three-way catalyst was fully realized by the introduction of the oxygen sensor in the mid-1980s. Oxidation catalysts had been around since 1975, but the oxygen sensor was a breakthrough, because it controlled the air/fuel ratio so closely that oxidation and reduction reactions could occur in the same catalytic device at the same time. It was phenomenal--the "space shot" of automotive engineering. The three-way catalyst led to the rapid replacement of carburetors with computer-controlled fuel injectors. It's a perfect example of a technology that was simply too powerful to ignore. As a result, we enjoy a much improved car today.
In 1985, you speculated that a computer-controlled, low-pollution, durable, and affordable heavy duty diesel engine could be available in 10 years. Has that projection proven true?
Yes, beyond expectations. Problems with pollution have been successfully addressed, and the engine is definitely durable and fuel efficient. There are even lower polluting diesels on the way.
You've been deeply involved in the perfection of heavy duty diesel exhaust particulate traps. Were these traps most useful as a way to bring existing engines into compliance with near-term regulations, or will they continue to be valuable emissions control devices?
Traps and their regeneration control systems are complicated. Manufacturers have devised better ways to reduce particulates, primarily through improved combustion as well as flow-through aftertreatment devices. Low-sulfur diesel fuel allows the use of oxidation catalysts in diesel engines and is somewhat analogous to removing the lead from gasoline. In all, the new technology is less expensive and more durable than particulate traps.
What are the biggest hurdles to further lowering vehicle emissions?
There are many technical responses to that question, but the biggest hurdle is an ever-expanding population--more drivers means more vehicles on the road. For the better part of my career, I've observed the automobile from its tailpipe. As I continue to examine vehicle exhaust, I marvel at the major reductions in harmful pollutants already made by manufacturers and refiners. I am encouraged and optimistic about the future possibilities. However, I also see more and more tailpipes, not just in the U.S., but throughout the world. In reality, our best pollution control efforts have barely kept pace with increased vehicle use.
A "supercar"--a family-size sedan averaging 80 miles to the gallon--has been proposed as part of the government and industry Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). What technological advances will make development of the supercar possible? Will the Institute be involved in any of them?
Supercar will rely on an array of new technologies. Some of these are lightweight, super-strong materials; new manufacturing processes, including energy-efficient vehicle production; improved safety systems; advanced engines and fuels; improved emissions control; computer controls of virtually every vehicle system, including voice-activated systems; and intelligent vehicles and highways.
But to achieve a fuel economy of 80 miles per gallon, three times today's average, two considerations prevail--reduced vehicle mass coupled with a highly efficient propulsion system. Aluminum and plastic composites are two material possibilities, but they are considerably more expensive than steel. Several propulsion systems are being examined, and the Department of Energy considers the strongest contenders to be a direct-injection engine in a hybrid or standalone configuration, a gas turbine-electric hybrid engine, and fuel cells.
I think a promising candidate is the direct-injection, compression ignition diesel-cycle engine burning a fuel like dimethyl ether, which is relatively clean-burning and has a high cetane number, a factor in ease of ignition and controlled combustion. Dimethyl ether is the simplest ether. There are no carbon-carbon bonds, and this is the stated reason for little or no combustion-related smoke or particulates. The intimate presence of oxygen helps promote complete combustion. Oxides of nitrogen are lower than in diesel fuel, but must be further controlled. The absence of particulates makes exhaust gas recirculation feasible. There will be logistics problems similar to those for liquid petroleum gas, and price and availability are uncertain, but such an engine would build on existing technology.
In regard to the Institute's involvement, the Engine and Vehicle Research Division is participating in projects for PNGV participants such as the EPA to develop high-efficiency hydraulic pumps for hybrid hydraulic vehicles and an advanced lightweight accumulator that stores hydraulic power for hybrid vehicles. Another project, for the U.S. Council for Automotive Research and NASA, involves computer model development of power train components and vehicle configurations. The models will be used in a trade-off study to identify key technologies that can satisfy PNGV goals. Internally funded research and development is also under way to investigate new fuel cell designs. (See article, Fuel Cells Come Down to Earth.)
The technical challenge now and in the future is the match of the appropriate propulsion system to the type of fuel and its energy source. Eventually, probably within the next 50 years, crude oil and natural gas will become so difficult and expensive to extract from the Earth that alternative energy sources will prevail for vehicles. In the meantime, the sources that already exist must be perfected, and new ones must be researched. Alternatives derived from sources other than crude oil and natural gas will require substantial investment to develop the advanced technology required. In transportation, the need is to make fuel potent and portable and transparent to the consumer in terms of availability, range, and convenience, if not in cost. We are a long way from doing this with any non-petroleum-based fuel. A mix of engines, fuels, and energy sources, including solar and nuclear, will compete in the future. One great by-product of this accelerated research is that the consumer will benefit from incremental fuel efficiency gains as soon as they become available.
The Automotive Products and Emissions Research Division consists of four departments, all of which have received ISO 9002 certification. Three departments have also earned ISO/IEC Guide 25 accreditation, with the fourth to follow in a few months. What does this accomplishment mean for the Institute?
Meeting these quality standards brings enormous credibility to the Institute, and it also helps make the companies we support more competitive, particularly in the European Economic Community. But the real value of this effort lies in something less tangible--empowerment of the individual.
When we began a program of continuous quality improvement in this division, around 1988, it was primarily at our customers' request. Since that time, we've seen the enormous benefit it brings in terms of removing fear from the workplace and in building trust and confidence. One example of this is the Process Improvement Teams, or PIT crews, which give each employee the ability to measure his or her own performance, as well as the performance of the team. PIT crews allow us to respond quickly to improve test procedures as well as test accuracy and repeatability, and to reduce the incidence of aborted tests.
Since quality initiatives became widespread in this division, absenteeism has dropped and enthusiasm has soared. During the past six years, almost 15 percent of the staff has had perfect attendance each year. I think that's clear evidence that this is a good place to work, and I'm proud to be a part of it.
Do you have any last words about the future of automotive research?
The cars we drive are extremely high-tech, yet they are mass produced with continuous improvements in quality. The emphasis is, and will continue to be, on passenger cars with increasingly longer lifetimes coupled with lower lifetime emissions and fuel consumption. Other on- and off-road vehicles are just one or two steps behind. Improvements to fuels and lubricants must keep pace with equipment needs for the consumer to have a high value product.
Of particular concern is the growing desire for personal transportation in countries such as China and India. The impact of this desire on pollution, energy, congestion, and safety poses real challenges to us to assist in wise and timely decisions. An array of proven world technology is available to be incorporated into high quality, affordable vehicles for these countries, with a minimum impact on pollution and resources.
Published in the Summer 1996 issue of Technology Today®, published by Southwest Research Institute. For more information, contact Joe Fohn.